ANAHEIM, Calif. — Oh, if Will Middlebrooks could be Will Middlebrooks again. What a lineup the Red Sox would have.
Young, strong, righthanded power. A threat to do something big every time he comes up. Think Nick Esasky or Jason Bay or Adrian Beltre.
Think dependable power and hitting and consistency at third base.
It has been a dream of the 25-year-old Middlebrooks since he hit the majors with such aplomb in 2012. He’s projected as a 30-home run/100-RBI man. And while his career numbers over 162 games project out to 28 homers and 94 RBIs, Middlebrooks hasn’t quite been that player.
It’s been a finger, a hand, a calf, a back.
It’s been not making those young hitter adjustments. It’s been up and down from Pawtucket to Boston from DL to DL. It’s been losing his job twice.
The Red Sox didn’t send him off to Miami, or include him in any deals. There have been injuries and growing pains emotionally. His public courtship with former NESN and current NFL sideline reporter Jenny Dell, now his fiancée, was also difficult.
Middlebrooks’s personal life has been an open book.
And now, he gets what could be his final chance.
While the team took away his chance when they acquired Stephen Drew, which sent Xander Bogaerts to third, Drew has been sent to the Yankees, giving Middlebrooks another chance.
“The last two years haven’t been easy,” Middlebrooks said. “This is a good opportunity for me to put together some good at-bats and leave the season with a good taste in my mouth and go into next year with a little momentum.”
It’s got to be more than that.
It has to be stellar.
When Middlebrooks leaves for his offseason home, John Farrell and Ben Cherington have to know definitively, “Will Middlebrooks is our third baseman in 2015.” They made that leap after 2012. And Middlebrooks let them down.
Now he understands how important he is to the vitality of the Red Sox lineup.
“I think my first year or two, I probably didn’t understand that side of things, but this last year it’s sunk in. Just by seeing the trades that have been made the last few years while I’ve been here. I learned a lot about the business side of it and why certain decisions were made,” Middlebrooks said.
“I want to end the year on a high note. It just doesn’t benefit me but the organization as well. If I do well it takes worries off my mind and theirs. It gives me confidence to go forward and they’re able to make the tough decisions they have to make. I understand that I’m in the center of it and I need to perform like I envisioned and like they envisioned me performing.
“If I’m healthy, I think I can be an impact player,” Middlebrooks said.
He says in the last two seasons, “I feel like I’ve been in spring training all year. Every time I think I’m getting into a groove at the plate, something else happens. I’m starting to get my body back to playing every day.
“In the last two years I learned what I can play through and what I can’t play through. There are some things I need to keep to myself. You try to be a tough guy and be a good teammate, but sometimes you need to realize you’re not going to help the team going out there hurt because you’re not going to be able to perform like you want.
“So it’s been a couple of years of living and learning the hard way. It’s the big leagues and it’s been a good learning experience, but I want to get back to a normal playing career. I want this stuff behind me once and for all so I can just go out there and be the best player I can be.
“I certainly don’t blame everything on the injuries. It’s been frustrating though because there’s maybe one injury I could have controlled and that was the back. I don’t know if that stemmed from my collision with Rossy [David Ross] against Minnesota when we were going for a foul ball. I know the back bothered me after that. I can do core stuff and workouts to help that, but then the calf, hand, the finger . . . injuries I couldn’t control. I try to stay positive.
“It’s tough. Unfortunately, it’s been two years full of it, but I’ve had plenty of practice. I’ve become a lot more mentally sharp as a result of injuries, being optioned, losing my job a couple of times. I’ve gotten kicked in the ass. You don’t want to learn that way, but I have to take everything positive out of it that I can,” he said.
He doesn’t want to be remembered as the hot-shot kid who couldn’t get it done. And so he’s survived the roster moves that didn’t often benefit him.
“When they got Stephen [Drew] I didn’t think it would be that way forever. I understood bringing Stephen in. I go down with a broken finger and they didn’t know how long I would be out. That’s a move they had to make. I wasn’t critical of that or why they did it. I got it. I like to think I’m a team guy. I want us to win and do well. Obviously I want to do well individually. Bringing Stephen in was giving us the best chance,” he said.
Middlebrooks thinks a combination of things led to his demise.
“Injuries played a big part, but that’s not an excuse for a lack of approach at the plate. I tried to do too much. Instead of thinking ‘OK I’m a good player and I can help us this way,’ I just tried to hit .290, hit 30 home runs and live up to those expectations. I don’t have to do that. [David] Ortiz and [Dustin] Pedroia carry the team. I have to do my part. I pushed myself a little too much. I was a little too impressed with myself,” he said.
He also had the reputation of being too into himself. He turned some teammates off at times. And that’s a big part that he wants to change.
“I also have to concentrate on being a good teammate, too,” he said. “You learn a lot when you’re down. You can learn from guys like Ross and [Mike] Napoli. I’m gonna take the cards I’ve been dealt and make the most of it. I’m back and I need to contribute to winning and to being a supportive and good teammate. Because that’s who I am. That’s what I want to be known for.”
And so life is getting good again.
His personal life is swell and now he’s trying to get his professional life where he wants it.
Free of injury and of looking over his shoulder. Free of not putting the pressure of the world on his shoulders.
He needs to be Will Middlebrooks again. It’s a journey that’s taken two years, but he hopes he’s arrived.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.